Small-Time Athletes Who Delivered on the Biggest Stages

Sean HojnackiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2016

Small-Time Athletes Who Delivered on the Biggest Stages

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    Seahawks LB Malcolm Smith put Peyton Manning and the Broncos to bed in Super Bowl XLVIII.
    Seahawks LB Malcolm Smith put Peyton Manning and the Broncos to bed in Super Bowl XLVIII.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The best pro athletes earn huge sums of money for their professionalism and valuable skills, but sometimes in pressure-packed situations, overlooked players emerge with unforeseen heroics that make all the difference. These unheralded athletes from the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL each saved their best play for the biggest moments.

Bucky Dent, New York Yankees (1978)

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    Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

    If you're from New England, you probably think that New York Yankees infielder Bucky Dent's legal name includes a certain expletive ending with "-ing." That's solely because Dent lofted the decisive home run over Fenway Park's Green Monster in the do-or-die 1978 AL East tiebreaker game.

    During his 12-year career, Dent launched just 40 home runs, or roughly one every 125 plate appearances. But that seemingly innocuous fly ball found its way over the wall and propelled the Yanks into the playoffs, capping a rousing September comeback to nip the Boston Red Sox.

    And Dent wasn't finished: He hit .417 and drove in seven runs during the World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, claiming series MVP.

Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots (2015)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    In 2014, defensive back Malcolm Butler went undrafted out of the University of West Alabama, a Division II school, but the rookie caught on as a backup with the New England Patriots. And they're extremely lucky that he did, because that season he made the game-saving interception in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX to defeat the Seattle Seahawks.

    On the decisive play, Butler was a late substitution for a linebacker after Patriots coaches saw three wide receivers in the offensive huddle, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. The astute Butler then jumped Ricardo Lockette's slant route and picked off Russell Wilson's pass at the goal line to deny the potential game-winning TD. It was his first career interception.

    After the game, Butler credited his coaches, saying via the Providence Journal's Tim Britton: "From preparation, I remembered the formation they were in and I knew they were doing a pick route. I just beat him to the route and made the play." Appropriately, game MVP Tom Brady had Chevy give the accompanying MVP pickup truck directly to Butler.

Cedric Maxwell, Boston Celtics (1981)

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Despite playing alongside four future Hall of Famers (Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Nate "Tiny" Archibald), Boston Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell won the 1981 NBA Finals MVP after leading the C's in scoring for three consecutive games against the Houston Rockets.

    Assuming Kawhi Leonard gets his All-Star nod soon, Maxwell will remain the only NBA Finals MVP never to make an All-Star team. In fact, every other player to win the award and be eligible for Hall of Fame voting has been inducted, except Maxwell.

David Eckstein, St. Louis Cardinals (2006)

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Standing at 5'7", some might say that David Eckstein is literally a small-time athlete, but there's a reason that the shortstop was nicknamed "Just Enough." The eminently pesky hitter had a knack for contributing when it counted, especially when the lights were brightest.

    Already a champion from his time with the 2002 Los Angeles Angels, Eckstein led the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals to another title and earned World Series MVP honors (plus a yellow Corvette).

    The Cardinals split the first two games of the series, and Eckstein started in an 0-for-11 slump. Then he sparked the offense by going 8-for-11 at the plate during the series' final three games—including three doubles and a single in a momentous Game 4—as the Cards beat the Detroit Tigers in five. That's not bad for a guy who typically choked up on the bat by a couple of inches.

Max McGee, Green Bay Packers (1967)

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    James Flores/Getty Images

    The first Super Bowl was so long ago, the term "Super Bowl" hadn't even been popularized yet. Dubbed the "First AFL-NFL World Championship Game," the Green Bay Packers rolled the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. But the outcome might have been very different if loosey-goosey wide receiver Max McGee didn't have such soft hands that day.

    Sitting behind starter Boyd Dowler on the depth chart, McGee thought he would not be playing in the title game and went out drinking the night before, violating curfew. McGee arrived nursing a hangover, but he was inserted after Dowler sustained an injury in the first quarter.

    McGee opened the scoring with a slick one-handed catch on a pass behind him that he took in for a 37-yard score. He added a second touchdown in the third quarter and finished the game with seven catches for 138 yards. During the entire 1966 regular season, he had only caught four passes for 91 yards and a single TD.

Ruslan Fedotenko, Tampa Bay Lightning (2004)

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    CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

    During the 2003-04 regular season, Ruslan Fedotenko played 77 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, notching 17 goals and 22 assists. But during that year's Stanley Cup playoffs, the undrafted Ukrainian somehow scored 12 goals and assisted on two more in just 22 games.

    The Lightning barely survived Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Calgary Flames, needing two overtimes to secure a victory. In Game 7, they hoisted the Cup following a 2-1 win in which Fedotenko netted both of his team's goals. Fedotenko had also scored the Lightning's first goal in Game 7 of their conference finals victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Don Larsen, New York Yankees (1956)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Don Larsen finished his sophomore campaign in 1954 with a 3-21 record, he never won more than 11 games in any season and ended his career 10 games below .500. But he still tossed the greatest postseason pitching performance of all time.

    In the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larsen started Game 2 for the New York Yankees and failed to hold a 6-0 lead, exiting after just 1.2 innings. Then, with the series tied, Larsen found the ultimate redemption in Game 5.

    Facing a lineup that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, Larsen hurled what is still the only perfect game in postseason history. That 2-0 victory put the Bronx Bombers up in the series before they closed out Brooklyn for good in Game 7.

Malcolm Smith, Seattle Seahawks (2014)

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Out of 254 picks in the 2011 NFL draft, USC linebacker Malcolm Smith was selected 242nd overall as the Seattle Seahawks took a chance on him late in the seventh round.

    Though Smith gradually worked his way into more playing time, he still only started eight games during the 2013 season as the Seahawks marched to Super Bowl XLVIII. But Smith showed a knack for turnovers late in the year, collecting four interceptions over the Seahawks' final five games, including one in the Super Bowl.

    Late in the first half, Smith returned an interception 69 yards for a touchdown that gave Seattle a commanding 22-0 lead over Peyton Manning and the supposedly mighty Denver Broncos. Smith also recorded nine tackles and recovered a fumble, garnering the Super Bowl MVP, only the third time since 1986 that a defensive player claimed the award.